Hope Theatre, London – until 1 July 2017
Hero’s coffin lies in a candlelit chapel of rest, draped in lace, overlooked by a portrait of the virgin Mary. Her cousin Beatrice and her lover Claudio quietly mourn the young woman, but their friend Benedick disrupts their grief. The characters are from Much Ado About Nothing of course, but this is not Much Ado About Nothing. David Fairs rips apart Shakespeare’s script to create a totally new story with Shakespeare’s verse and characters, I Know You of Old.
Paying homage to Shakespeare’s genius but not slavishly binding themselves to it, Golem! sticks up two fingers at Shakespeare purists who, with quivering voices, clutch their pearls and gasp, “But the text!” This is a contemporary story more like a soap opera, with a decidedly less happy outcome than the original play, delivered in the form of a surprising narrative twist. This bold, relationship-driven drama has some issues, but barnstorming performances and a script that toys with audience expectations is both disarming and compelling.
The entirety of Shakespeare’s script is Fairs’ playground; any phrase or line is fair game for reconfiguration to fit his story of just three characters. He has an innate sense of language and fairly sound dramaturgy, and he continuously challenges the audience to disregard knowledge and expectations of the source material – it’s a fantastic device. But director Anna Marsland’s choice of a semi-heightened performance style gives the production an undeserved frivolity.
Conor O’Kane is an astounding Claudio – totally heartfelt, his grief is devastating to behold. Raw, unrestrained and utterly captivating, O’Kane deserves to be the Next Big Thing. That’s not to say Fairs and Sarah Lambie aren’t excellent as Benedick and Beatrice – they absolutely are. The latter have a tense, sparky relationship prone to spontaneous short circuiting that is both great fun and darkly edgy. Fairs makes a most detestable villain with nods to Iago and Richard III.
Fairs’ work is an important contrubution to Shakespeare practice, even if his output lacks the splendour and grandiosity of Shakespeare’s works. To create an entirely new play using only Shakespeare’s text demonstrates the timelessness and robustness of the language, characters and themes. This is Shakespeare fan fic executed with care, skill and panache. More, please!